For me, Harry is a local hero; one of us. And though removed by time and space, he’s familiar. Like most record collectors I know, he was eccentric to say the least. But trying to explain and define Harry’s subterranean achievements and wide-ranging interests to the uninitiated is a tricky endeavor. It’s actually impossible.
But of all the things credited to Harry, it’s The Anthology Of American Folk Music that’s easy to wrap our ears around. Every year I produce a KEXP radio show in honor of Harry Smith where I play a handful of songs from his Anthology, and the many versions of those songs in order to see how these trad songs change and evolve over time (for instance, “The Boll Weevil” from Charlie Patton’s 1929 version to Vera Hall’s 1930’s version to Odetta’s version in 1963) and with the hope of giving our local boy his due. Arguably the most important release of all-time (1952), The Anthology is a collection of old-time music from the late 20’s and early 30’s that spawned the folk and blues revival of the 60’s and influenced everyone from Dylan to the Grateful Dead.
Harry’s eccentric and underground existence all started here, growing up in Bellingham and Anacortes (enrolled at UW for a short time), before moving to Berkeley where he smoked a joint (late 1940’s) and became an experimental filmmaker and one of the earliest and greatest record collectors. It was in Berkeley where Harry amassed most of his collection that became The Anthology.
He then spent the majority of his years in NYC as a beat, faux anthropologist, paper-airplane and Ukranian easter-egg collector, recorder of street sounds, skid-row drunkard, and overall nut who sacrificed eating in order to buy such things as rare books on theosophy or exotic string games. He resided at the legendary Chelsea Hotel in the late 60’s and would comb a young Patti Smith’s hair during her random visits but maintained a strict rule for visitors to “not touch anything”. Harry had a lot of things. He constantly traded, shifted, and moved his collections around which makes defining his “work” and life achievement hard to quantify and even harder to explain.
Doug Harvey, who nailed the whole “Harry thing” most accurately in the LA Weekly back in 2001, wrote:
Known as much for his aroma, mercurial temper and confrontational table manners as for his actual art and scholarship, Smith himself — his entire way of being — was a sort of transgressive artwork designed to sift the groovy people from the phonies and set the latter scurrying. The result was, of course, lots and lots of pissed-off phonies and a handful of deeply loyal groovies.
And although Harry had lots of art and scholarship, for us modern-day groovies and diggers of the thrift-store find, there’s always The Anthology. It’s the collection of records that we music geeks like to hang our hat on and say “thank you Harry”. Thanks for recognizing the importance of our American oral tradition and early recordings that define our American identity. Songs that continue to breathe new life with every new generation that discovers them.
Allen Ginsberg (good friend and photographer of the famous Harry pours milk pic) arranged Smith to be a “Shaman in Residence” at Naropa Institute in Boulder where Harry eventually died in 1992, but not before receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. The Smithsonian Folkways re-issue of The Anthology Of American Folk Music won a Grammy in 1997. Harry said in his lifetime achievement acceptance speech, “My dream came true; I saw the world change through music”
Tune in to The Roadhouse on KEXP this Wednesday, December 12, from 6pm to 9pm, as I host my annual tribute to local hero Harry Smith and his Anthology Of American Folk Music. And this Friday check out…
American Standard Time, Ball of Wax, and Hearth Music Present:
A Tribute to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music
Columbia City Theatre 12/14, 8pm
Hosted by Greg Vandy
Special animation by Drew Christie
The Horde and the Harem
The Sumner Brothers
Led to Sea
Annie Ford Band
Les Chattes Creoles
Jacob Miller & The Bridge City Crooners
8pm / $10 advance / $12 door